At the same time, the term MOOCs, which had been circulating quietly in educational circles since it was coined in 2008, took off. Media accounts boomed, and company principals were soon giving talks at the popular Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conferences and the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As Koller told one interviewer: “I can't believe my life!”
The MOOC companies can point to plenty of success stories. For example, the 7,200 students who completed Agarwal's electric-circuits MOOC in spring 2012 included an 81-year-old man, a single mother with two children, and a 15-year-old prodigy from Mongolia who got a perfect score on the final exam. Udacity's Introduction to Computer Science MOOC, currently its most popular, has enrolled more than 270,000 students.
But MOOCs have also had some teething problems. “Many people have no idea what they're in for when they commit to put a course online,” says John Mitchell, a computer scientist and Stanford's first vice-provost of online learning. “Restructuring even one lecture into short, self-contained segments takes a fair amount of thinking.” So does coming up with good, compelling questions to engage the students between the segments. Then there is the push for high-quality production, he says. “It takes many hours to produce one hour of quality video.”
More worrisome are the MOOCs' dismal completion rates, which rarely rise above 15%. Completion has been a problem for distance learning ever since the first correspondence courses in the nineteenth century, says Dede. Only a small fraction of students have the drive and the perseverance to learn on their own, he says, and most people need help: “social support from their fellow students to help them keep going, and intellectual support from their professors and fellow students to help them figure out the material”. At the moment, says Dede, the MOOC companies' peer-to-peer communication tools don't do nearly enough to provide that kind of help. “They're just kind of hoping that people will figure out from the bottom up how to support each other,” he says.
The companies acknowledge that completion rates are a concern and that their platforms are still works in progress. “My aspiration isn't to reach the 1% of the world that is self-motivating,” says Thrun, “it's to reach the other 99%.” The companies are already working on enhanced social tools such as live video and text chat, for example.
And to observers such as David Krakauer, that is as it should be. “There are two ways to make something new,” says Krakauer, a biologist who directs the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You can design something that's perfect on paper, and then try to build it. Or you can start with a system that's rubbish, experiment and build a better one with feedback. That's the Silicon Valley style — but it's also the scientific way.”
Silicon valley style
A Silicon Valley sensibility permeates the three big MOOC firms. For example, they all subscribe to the open-source ideal. “Charging for content would be a tragedy,” says Ng. But they also see plenty of opportunities to make money using the 'freemium' model followed by Google and many other technology companies: give away the basic product to draw users, and then charge for premium add-ons.
One obvious add-on might be certification, says Ng. “You would get a certificate that verifies you took the course for a small fee like US$10–$30” — a potentially substantial revenue stream when enrolments are in six figures. In the future, the companies might also offer full university course credits for a fee; they are already working with accreditation agencies to arrange that.